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I Survived Boarding School, Unfortunately...

Over recent years I have found myself in a position of seeming to defend Indian boarding schools against assertions that depict them as a combination of reform school, prison, gulag, and Nazi death camp.

But I don’t mean to defend Indian boarding schools in general, for I have only experienced twelve school years – my entire youth – in one Indian boarding school – Holy Rosary Mission, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. So, all I can attest to with any certainty is my experiences in that school, and only for the period of 1940 to 1952. And my contentions are merely to give a more accurate account of that period in the school’s long history, and hopefully a better perspective from the point of view of having actually been there.

But I have no horror stories to tell about my life in that school, and that disappoints some readers, and makes them angry at me to where they call me names, like liar and denier. They say that I did suffer horribly, but am trying for whatever reason to cover it up or deny it ever happened. I have been called brainwashed to where I just don’t remember the torture I endured. I’m sure that some even say that I actually didn’t even attend an Indian boarding school.

One young writer wrote, “I truly believe that many Indians of your generation have been completely brainwashed by boarding schools and many have even passed down much of the brainwashing to younger generations.” Wow! This is the stuff of movies like the Manchurian Candidate. This young writer said that I praise Indian boarding schools, which is hardly the case. What really angered him was a column I wrote about St. Patrick’s Day at the mission school, and making it sound like fun. And indeed it was fun. But this young man, a college freshman, knows better than I do, and he insists that I couldn’t have had any fun because of the horrible suffering I was going through, which he likened to Auschwitz. And he wants me to snap out of my brainwashed state and start feeling appropriately traumatized and bitter like the victim I’m supposed to be.

All my siblings, all eleven of us who grew to adulthood, attended Indian boarding schools. Some of them attended two different boarding schools, and one attended three. All were older than I, but none of them described any horrors, and photos they brought home showed a rather normal, even enjoyable campus life.

Reading comments at the end of one of my articles in Indian Country Today on-line, there is some really mean stuff. One asks why the ICT newsmag would even print my “diatribes of denial.” In another, a person (anonymous, of course) expresses surprise that anyone (especially ICT editor Ray Cook) would defend me, for I am indefensible. Why? Because I will not lie about my experiences, which those writers know nothing about. Most likely, they have never attended a boarding school, or maybe never even had a forebear who did.

It’s hell being an untraumatized boarding school survivor who can’t tell stories that would raise the hackles on your neck, or can’t show scars of ritual scourging across my back. And, without such lurid stories or scars, I cannot, with credibility, tell of my experiences, they say. I am without history, say those who detest me for having survived boarding school without dragging chains of victimhood.

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In the summer of 2010, I attended an all-classes reunion at Red Cloud Indian School, which was Holy Rosary Mission when I attended there almost sixty years earlier. There were several alumni there from my era. In the awning that gave us some relief from the heat, a microphone was passed around so that we old-timers could share remembrances and laughs. Most of us told of hard times and being whipped or spanked. But even those experiences were told with humor. One of the young ladies, a recent graduate of the school, took us on tour of the new high school building. The new facility is impressive, with science and computer labs, and a special area for Lakota studies. During the tour, one of the old-timers asked the question, “Where are the dungeons where students are chained and beaten?” This drew hearty laughs all around.

That reunion gave me some relief, a feeling of normalcy. I am not, after all, the only survivor of an Indian boarding school who isn’t suffering from all kinds of ghosts of boarding school past.

I don’t mean to make light of historical trauma (HT) or intergenerational trauma (IGT), but it needs to be put in context by its scholars and true-believers, and better explained to lay persons like myself. As it is, all we know is that it is most often portrayed as the root of all evils that afflict Indian country today. Poverty, unemployment, lack of education, are no longer critical problems to be addressed, for they can’t be resolved anyway until IGT or HT is healed.

No longer is anyone just a no-good SOB, he is merely a descendent of some Indian boarding school survivor and suffering from IGT; in other words, not an ogre or criminal at all, just a victim. One of the great champions of the movement, a person whose stories have laid the basis for the movement, even blames the boarding school experience for his fate of having surpassed Mickey Rooney and Henry VIII in the number of spouses he’s gone through. Boarding school, he tells us, has ruined the ability of Indians to keep long term relationships. His exes might not buy into that.

But, again, approaching my fiftieth wedding anniversary to my first wife, it may be said that I was so thoroughly brainwashed that I’m even tolerable to her. Or that my successful marriage may be seen as proof that I could not have experienced boarding school at all.

Obviously, I am skeptical of the HT/IGT phenomenon, and thus, to the true believers, I am a heretic, an agent of the demon of denial or forgetfulness or truth. I’m not questioning that HT/IGT is real and valid. But I see it being abused by some with personal or political or even economic motives. Even asking pertinent questions brings excoriation and abuse from those zealots of the cause.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is